In the last year, roughly 7 percent of adults experienced a period of social anxiety. More than 12 percent of American adults will go through social anxiety at some point in their life, with women at higher risk of social anxiety than men (eight percent versus six percent). Adolescents also have a higher risk.
With the prevalence of social anxiety across our society – its likely not surprising to hear there are more than a few TED talks exploring the diagnosis. TED talks by women like Olivia Remes and Jane McGonigal have accumulated hundreds of thousands of views due to their unique approach to overcoming social phobia. Youth advocates, like Marielle Cornes, are also making waves with their peers through their real-life experiences with anxiety as an adolescent.
Clearly, social anxiety is a topical subject. There is a lot of new data suggesting social anxiety, especially among youth, is on the rise. More people are now aware of the mental disorder, but it’s still often misunderstood.
As Cornes so pointedly explained in her presentation, she expected to grow out of her nervousness as she got older. She never realized all her symptoms denoted a mental illness. Many people experience this same doubt. People decide to avoid treatment for social anxiety because they are unaware of the symptoms. Plus, the signs are also easy to mask – for example by avoiding triggering social situations altogether.
What is Social Anxiety, Really?
Are you experiencing the signs and symptoms of social anxiety? The official definition of social anxiety disorder is the “persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or scrutiny by others. The individual fears that he or she will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be embarrassing and humiliating.” Does this sound familiar?
What the numerous TED talks on the subject have helped make clear, is there are more ways than one to conquer the frustrating and isolating symptoms of social anxiety. Remes, McGonigal, and Cornes all tackle these mental health issues head-on and provide a few uncommon tips for fighting anxiety that you may not expect.
How to Cope with Anxiety – Olivia Remes
Remes is a Ph.D. student at Cambridge, studying anxiety and depression. While she doesn’t go into any personal history of mental illness, she does go into the available research. The topic is near and dear to her heart, as her academic focus.
Even if you don’t have social anxiety yourself, you’ll get a real sense of the experience through her brief and dramatic introduction to the disorder. She describes panic in crowded places, the avoidance techniques, the fear of confrontation, and the shame of socializing. Her very raw description of how social anxiety eventually leads to avoidance, which then leads to loneliness and isolation are highly accurate. It’s nice to hear she really understands the experience, considering she studies it for a living.
As she describes, anxiety is, unfortunately, mislabeled as a weakness. Something we all just need to “get over.” But it affects one in 14 people around the world and costs the world $42 billion in treatment on an annual basis. It’s not just nerves; it’s a real and frustratingly undertreated mental illness with severe impacts on society.
Through her research at Cambridge, she has pieced together a few methods of countering the inevitable social isolation and feelings of loneliness that coincide with anxiety. She highlights three discoveries pulled from the scientific literature:
- Engage in Experiences
- Purpose and Meaning
Each of these three suggestions contributes to lowering the risk of anxiety in your life. She bases each tip on solid research, which Remes has adapted for real-life applications. When taken together, even as small daily personal challenges, they could reduce the isolation and other symptoms so commonly associated with the diagnosis.
Remes describes engaging in the experience as a way to overcome the often painful decision-making process of an anxious person. Even making small decisions can be brutally slow if you’ve got any form of anxiety. You assess, reassess, and keep evaluating until you are mentally exhausted.
She encourages leaping into things, even if the result isn’t perfect. To help summarize the benefits of bad decision making, she quotes G.K. Chesterton who said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly the first time.” Take control but just doing, no matter the quality of the outcome. Break the cycle of paralyzing non-action and fear.
Secondly, Remes talks about the power of self-forgiveness. Social anxiety can often trigger intense shame, and guilt. Whether it stems from a panic attack in public, or the inability to talk to others – social anxiety produces many emotions ranging from self-loathing to shame. She suggests working on forgiving yourself for anything you may feel related to your social anxiety. Self-compassion is a great tool to heal wounds.
The final suggestion pulled from her research recommends digging into one’s purpose and meaning. It is a lofty goal, but one which ultimately comes down to doing one action with another person in mind. Volunteer for charity, work towards a loving-kindness meditation or share the information you’ve read about in this post with others. You might not have to dedicate your life to someone, but you can do one action with selflessness.
Overcoming Social Anxiety- Marielle Cornes
Cornes beautifully highlights social anxiety from the point of view of an adolescent. Her story explores what it was like to go her entire early school life without friends. She tells us how painful it was to finally find friends, only to move out of state. How she spent a full two years in her new school struggling to talk to others and engage socially. Many adolescents can likely sympathize with her story to some degree. Social circles in high school are notoriously isolating.
What is remarkable about Cornes’ story is how she expected to grow out of her social fear. Despite her social anxiety unraveling deeper into depression and feelings of worthlessness – it still took her two years before she agreed to seek therapy. Her diagnosis of social anxiety was at first challenging to understand, but ultimately liberating — an essential consideration for anyone considering counseling in their own situation. A diagnosis is not a death sentence – it opens doors.
She has come so far in her personal growth since her diagnosis, that she is giving talks at the Youth division of TED. No longer is she uncomfortable and ashamed to speak in front of others; she is poised, calm, and collected.
Cornes encourages all of us to be our best selves in social situations. Many people may not present signs of social anxiety, even if they struggle with it. Why not reach out to people at a party, and make that first contact? In her experience, having someone start up a conversation was a game changer. Spread kindness to all, by being that conversation starter.
The Game That Can Give You 10 Extra Years of Life – Jane McGonigal
Initially, McGonigal’s advice on gaming your life for a longer lifespan may not seem so applicable to the socially anxious. But on further inspection, it has many concrete suggestions for everyone battling an illness or personal challenge.
McGonigal developed her gaming technique based on her experience battling depression which formed after a traumatic brain injury. She laid in bed for months, feeling no will to live. As a video game developer, one day she decided to tackle her situation like a game. And this game, which later turned into a personal growth mantra called “Super-Better” is now used by people all over the world.
From her work life, she knows that games make us more resilient. They encourage us to reach out to others for support, to be more ambitious than we might be without them, and to tackle more significant and harder challenges. Her game, using real-life exercises, helped her turn her depression and suicidal thoughts around in less than a week.
Did she cure her depression immediately? No. But she did feel better, and eventually pulled through the most challenging period of her life. After sharing her game mentality on social media, she has received an outpouring from others about how her game helped them pull through, everything from chronic illness to mental illness. It’s why she now promotes it across a wide range of issues well beyond how she originally applied it.
The game works to tackle tough challenges as though it were a video game. You’ve got to reach out to others for help, identify and conquer the bad guys (or roadblocks), and develop a total resiliency.
The game itself is quite simple and revolves around the way each of the following skills is scientifically proven to extend life span.
- Physical Resilience – for example: stand up and take a few steps around the room.
- Mental Resilience- for example: Count backward from 100 by sets of seven.
- Emotional Resilience – for example: Look up cute photos of baby animals online
- Social Resilience – for example: Say thank you to someone.
Each of these steps builds resiliency with long lasting results that are directly beneficial to folks with social anxiety. Little actions like these make significant differences. Like others who have taken on this challenge, if you conquer these steps daily – you’ll also feel the difference. Each level is an act of defiance towards the paralyzing fear you have or the seemingly never-ending spiral of negative thoughts, and tough decisions. By building resilience, you make a barrier between you and the symptoms of social anxiety.
All three TED talks highlighted here provide helpful and actionable steps for you to push back against the frustrations of social anxiety. Little actions, over the long run, can make big differences to your feelings of isolation and loneliness.
You might even find that the personal stories so bravely shared by McGonigal and Cornes make it feel less lonely. You might also find that robust scientific data on how many people experience it, or what helps them cope with it, as per Remes, are also comforting. You are not alone, and people just like you have overcome mental illness to great success.
TED talks on social anxiety combine personal experiences with interesting approaches, which are all presented by people who have a unique understanding of the diagnosis. It’s a refreshing way to learn about how you feel, from people who have real-life and actionable tips to overcoming it.